I only speak English, like your typical American. I’ve always kind of wanted to change this, and so, a few months ago, I started seriously learning to speak Spanish with the goal of becoming conversationally fluent. Prior to that I’ve never seriously attempted to learn a second language.
In this article I’m going to talk about my motivations for learning a second language and share my some of advice for beginner’s interested in learning to speak a second language.
Why Learn To Speak A Second Language?
In less than two months, I’m headed to the Spanish-speaking world…indefinitely. One of the factors that influenced our decision to travel to South America (instead of some other part of the world) was my desire to learn to speak another language (Spanish). Whereas in other parts of the world, the language can vary from country to country or even region to region, South America is the ultimate playground for the student of Spanish. Jungles, beaches, mountains, colonial cities, modern cities, ancient ruins, various cultures and customs…almost all under the umbrella of the Spanish language. With the exception of Brazil every country from Mexico down to the tip of Patagonia claims Spanish as their native language.
For an adventure in language learning and cultural immersion, South America seemed liked the perfect choice. After all, there is clearly a different level of cultural understanding that can be achieved when you are able to speak the language of the people whom you are attempting to understand. Language is your gateway into how people think and communicate, it’s a tool of understanding.
One of the major motivations of travel is to experience the world first hand, through your own senses. That’s more than just seeing with your own eyes. Learning the native language of the place you are visiting allows you to get even closer to the heart of the culture, experiencing it in a more personal way. It removes another layer of abstraction, the layer of translation. It eliminates the language barrier and allows you to communicate first hand with the world you are seeking to experience, to understand.
And so learning Spanish has become a central aspect of our journey. A thread that will bring unity and a sense of purpose to the trip. And since deciding to travel into South America, I have been greatly inspired to dedicate my time, as much time as possible that is, to learning Spanish before we leave. The goal being to the groundwork here so I can start communicating (or at least trying to communicate) as soon as I arrive in Nicaragua in January.
My Spanish Learning Journey…So Far
It’s been 3 months since I really started my language learning journey. In that time, I’ve probably spent an average of 3 hours per day on the language which is, I’ll admit, not a scientific estimate. It’s difficult to really know because there are some days when I’ll spend most of my waking hours obsessed with Spanish and other days when I’m fed up and fail to do even a minimum amount of study. Also, not all hours of study are equal. Sometimes I’m really engaged and making a lot of progress. Other times, I can’t seem to focus and the process feels forced.
All in all, I’ve probably exceeded 100 hours of study in Spanish. That’s a lot of hours in a relatively concentrated period of time. Not only that, but I’ve dabbled with an enormous variety of study materials and learning methods. Some have worked out great, others were a waste of time and money.
Having spent all this time and having tried such a variety of resources, I feel like I’ve gained a lot of insight into the process of learning Spanish (or any second language) as a beginner. Accordingly, I’m going to share some of that advice with you today and give my general recommendations for the beginner student of Spanish and potentially any second language.
As always, this is what worked for me and your mileage may vary. Today’s advice will focus on general principals and in a future post I will share my favorite Spanish learning resources along with the ones that I think are a waste.
Lessons Learned About Learning To Speak A Second Language
1. Being Bilingual Is Cool…and other bad reasons to learn a language
You are embarking on an incredibly difficult, but rewarding journey. Learning a second language as an adult is an uphill battle if only due to the volume of material that you need to learn (thousands of words in vocabulary with quick recall in order to effectively communicate). And while I believe that anyone can do it, given the appropriate amount of time and effort, it’s not going to happen unless you have the right motivation.
If you’re only learning a language because ‘it would be cool’ to be bilingual, you will probably fail. With that underlying motivation, you’re likely to give up on learning long before achieving a high degree of fluency. Most likely, you’ll quit as soon as the novelty wears off.
I know this is true from first hand experience. I’ve dabbled with language learning in the past and quickly gave up because my motivations were shallow and vain. Simply put, it will be difficult to maintain the mental stamina and persistence required to learn a language unless you have a truly compelling reason to learn, an actual use for the language.
So, the only real motivation, the only real reason that works for learning a second language is the desire to communicate and to actually use the language. The shallow reasons are good for building up excitement, but communication is the only true reason that will keep you coming back even when your pursuit becomes stagnant.
The desire to communicate is pretty general though and can manifest itself differently for different people. Maybe you have family members that speak another language or maybe your career would benefit from a particular language. For me, it took an interest in learning about another culture and a commitment to spending several months to a year in a world that spoke that language.
Even if you aren’t going to be using a language as a necessity, you can still artificially create the need to communicate. The internet has made it possible for you to connect with people of any language and if you are committed enough you can find people to communicate with, and maybe for you that will be enough of a driving force to stay persistent.
I recently read a great book on language learning by a guy who speaks 18 different languages. If you are interested in learning a language and you are looking for the motivation, this book is a great way to get pumped up for learning and get an inside look at how and why he learned so many languages (very motivating and informative).
2. Putting In The Time…and the myth that adults can’t learn a new language!
Language learning is hard, I think, primarily due to the bulk and vastness of the material that you not only have to understand AND memorize, but become so intimately familiar with that its use is almost a reaction. So far, this difficulty and vastness has not discouraged me. The process can still be highly enjoyable and rewarding. And it certainly doesn’t have to be boring.
One thing will always remain true though, you will have to put in the time. You might be having fun doing it (I hope that’s the case and if it isn’t, you should probably question your motivations), but it will take a lot of time and effort. There is no quick fix or easy way to truly learn to communicate in another language. If communicating in that language is your goal, you have to be prepared to put in 100’s (maybe 1000’s) of hours to get there.
People always talk about the difficulties in language learning for an adult versus a child. I recognize that there are biological differences and that children may have an easier time acquiring languages. However, I don’t really buy that adults can’t effectively learn a second language, and in many ways, I think we have advantages that children don’t have, like the ability to already communicate, to dedicate ourselves to learning something, and to understand more complex, abstract concepts.
I really think it comes down to time and dedication.
Think about it. A child is basically working full time to learn to understand and interact with the world around it. 24 hours a day, people are talking and this child has to focus its mental energy on figuring out how to understand and communicate. All in all, it takes several years of full time effort for the child to succeed in acquiring basic communication skills. (This also assumes the child is in a situation where speaking that language is necessary. Otherwise, children don’t have the foresight and motivation to dedicate themselves to actually speaking another language, in the case of older kids taking classes in school.)
Compare that with an adult. I’ve spent 3 months being semi dedicated to learning Spanish…around 100 hours. I can certainly communicate more than a child of 3 months. (Yay, I feel good about myself by comparing myself to a baby! haha) Now extrapolate that and assume that an adult could fully immerse themselves in a language and force themselves to only use that new language…which is entirely possible if you are dedicated to learning.
I have seen people do this. Look at this challenge example (speaking of which, Michelle and I are talking about a full immersion challenge of our own for several weeks of travel to test the effectiveness of this approach). Or check out Benny’s Language Site.
I guarantee within several months of full dedication and full immersion that any adult would be able to communicate on a basic level. Imagine an adult having several years of full immersion. There’s no doubt that they would pick up the new language. Yes, the way they did it and mental energy expended might be different that a child, but the end result would be similar.
3. Rosetta Stone Sucks, it’s not you. (Diversification Of Learning Methods)
I think that the absolute worst way to learn a language is the way that seems to be most common in our society. That is, buying a particular language learning program and completing it, over the course of several months, from start to finish. I understand the reason for this. People want a packaged, straight-forward, complete solution to their problems and they want to be able to learn a language in their spare time. I get it. And while this approach might help you become familiar with a language and learn a few bits and pieces, there are a lot of reasons why it just isn’t the best approach.
First and foremost, everybody has a different learning style. The language learning programs that exist are extremely variable and each system takes a different general approach that will appeal to different types of learners. Of all the paid systems I’ve tried, the most popular one, Rosetta Stone, was actually my least favorite. I’m a big picture thinker and like to understand how the pieces of a puzzle fit together. I don’t like learning random things without context. And on top of that I found the pace to be slow and boring. Maybe that’s because I had some previous Spanish experience before I started. The point is that just because a program worked for someone else doesn’t mean it will work for you. Your best best is to try a lot of different programs and find which one or ones work for you.
Second, each of the language learning methods focus on different aspects of the language learning process and approach concepts in different ways. You have the Pimsleur approach (which I completed all 3 levels and found to be incredibly valuable), which is an audio program that focuses on putting the learner in practical situations, listening to actual conversation in the target language, and saying actual sentences in that language. You are a part of the conversation. The Assimil method, which is also great for other reasons, focuses on actual translation of written material between the native and target language. The Assimil method is more visual, introduces more vocabulary and verb forms, and is a great complement to an audio program. It’s a great program for the advanced beginner. The point is that every program is different and will help you out with different aspects of the target language. Because of this, the programs usually work better in combination with each other than alone.
Third, when you rely on just one program, you are compartmentalizing your quest to learn a language to just what that program has to say. It’s a pretty lazy method in that you rely on them and expect them to tell you everything about the language that’s important to you and that you will need. It’s critical to realize that this approach isn’t going to work. You need to expose yourself to the language in as many unique ways as possible and you need to be actively asking yourself questions about a language and seeking those answers. The best way to do this is to avoid the trap of picking one learning method and sticking with it. Diversify your learning approaches, get the most you can from each source, abandon the bad ones, constantly be asking yourself questions and seeking answers to those questions. Be on a quest to understand everything about that language and eventually you will.
Fourth, when you just stick to one program (or even multiple pre-arranged programs), you are not always using the language in a way that matters to you. You aren’t learning how to talk about the things you love and care about. You’re not learning how to communicate the things that matter to you. You’re just taking someone else’s ideas about what’s important to learn and going with them. It’s important that you care about what you are learning, that you actively be seeking knowledge, and that you are intellectually engaged in the material. If you are bored, you won’t remember anything.
The whole point of this is that you should diversify your learning approaches. Each new way you attempt to learn will give you a new perspective on the language and will make your understanding more well-rounded. Not only that but each time you hear something it will reinforce the concept in your memory. Also, the more methods you use, the more likely you are to stumble on explanations and approaches that work the best for you.
4. Being Lazy vs. Trying (Active vs. Passive Learning)
Not all hours spent learning a language are created equal. If you look at the learning process as “putting in your hours”, you probably aren’t making much progress. The typical methods of passive learning just aren’t as effective as truly being engaged in what you are doing. An hour spent trying to communicate an important written message is surely more useful than an hour spent mindlessly (or semi-mindlessly) completing Rosetta Stone or Duolingo or Pimsleur exercises that are boring to you.
It’s important to realize that, eventually, things will get boring. The basics of any language become boring. Specific language programs become boring. Studying flash cards gets boring. ETC. The key is to anticipate this, so that when you start to get bored, you know what to do. There are two general principles that will help with preventing boredom and mind-numbing passive learning.
- Variety. If one method of study becomes boring, drop it and try something different.
- Interest and Relevancy. Try to learn about and expose yourself to topics that are relevant and/or interesting to you. Read about topics you are interested in in your target language. Try to actually communicate messages to people. Always think about how to say things as you go through your day. Continuously be asking questions when something is curious to you and then seeking answers (your questions are relevant to you and you will be interested in the answer and have a better chance at remembering).
Here are some tips to maximize the effectiveness of your hours spent studying and generally transition towards more active learning:
- Maximize the amount of time you spend actually communicating in the target language. Examples: having conversations in the target language, writing and reading correspondence (emails) in the target language, watching an entertaining program in a language and actively seeking to understand what is said, reading a book or article in the target language.
- When something becomes boring, stop and move to something else.
- Don’t be afraid to go down a rabbit hole looking for answers to questions you find curious.
- Flashcards and memorization are necessary for vocabulary expansion, try to break those periods of study into small chunks and try to use flashcards with sentences (and maybe pictures) in addition to single words only.
- Talk to yourself and have imaginary conversations in your target language throughout the day.
- Find entertainment in your target language for passive exposure when your burnt out with rigorous studying (this is no substitute for active methods).
5. Using The Language Early And Often
You can learn a lot about a language and have a pretty extensive vocabulary without ever having to actually communicate with another human being. The problem with this is that communicating an original message and understanding what someone is saying require a unique set of skills and are more difficult tasks than the typical, pre-packaged language learning exercises.
Many people avoid actual communication because it’s both difficult and embarrassing. Unfortunately there is nothing you can do about this. Your first attempts to communicate will be awkward no matter how much time you spend learning beforehand. In fact, they will probably be less awkward and embarrassing if you’ve only just started to learn the language because at that point you won’t be putting so much pressure on yourself.
The bottom-line is that using the language is the reason you are learning it, and there is no better practice for using the language than using the language. Communicating in the target language is interesting and relevant because you are trying to communicate something you want to say to someone else that wants to hear it. It’s an extremely active way to learn because you have to exert 100% of your mental energy and attention to do it. And you are actually learning to say things that you will probably say again and that are definitely meaningful to you.
There’s also no excuse not to be communicating in your target language. You don’t need to go to a country that speaks Spanish to learn Spanish. With the internet, it’s easy to find people to as email buddies and even skype partners. Additionally, you can often find people that speak your target language in your local area. I think it’s valuable to do as much communicating as possible, both verbal and written.
Here are some tips for finding people to communicate with:
- Put an ad on craigslist. I did this and it led to a solid friendship with a guy from Costa Rica who lived just a few minutes away from me. We met up several times and spoke in Spanish.
- Check for local Meet-up groups at meetup.com.
- Use the following sites to find language buddies (email or skype) in your target language: InterPals, iTalki.com, and The Mixxer. I’ve used each of these sites to find a couple different people to talk with, one of whom I’ve become quite good friends with and continue to talk to on a weekly basis.
6. Increase Your Immersion Ratio
Your immersion ratio is the percentage of time your spend using your target language compared to your native language. At the one end of the extreme you have the person who renounces their native tongue, moves to a foreign country, and commits to only communicating in their target language. At the other end of the spectrum you have the busy language learner that can only spare 15 minutes a day to do a lesson on Duolingo.
Obviously, the more you can increase your immersion ratio, the faster you will be able to learn your target language. Most people don’t have the luxury or the desire to experience full immersion. But, if you are truly committed there are a lot of simple ways to increase your immersion ratio and make use of unused time to more rapidly acquire your target language.
- Carry flashcards with you on the go, so that you can study during spare moments.
- Find an audio program or podcast that is effective for you and use it for times that are otherwise wasted (e.g. in the car, on the metro, at the gym).
- Label things around the house in your target language.
- As you go through your day and come across different scenarios, think about the things you would say and how you would say them in your target language. Have imaginary conversations in your head. Write down important words and phrases that you don’t know so you can look them up later.
- Practice your pronunciation of words…anywhere.
- Replace your current sources of entertainment (TV, music, books) with sources of entertainment in your target language. Use subtitles if you have to. If you are beginner, look for stuff that is slightly easier but still entertaining. There are many books out there that have side by side translations for beginners-intermediate (example). Here are two examples of Spanish TV shows that are made for Spanish language learners and still have some entertainment value (especially Extr@): Destinos and Extr@.
- Find a friend or significant other who is interested in learning the language with you. Start communicating with them in the target language.
- Make friends who are native speakers of the target language and start hanging out with them.
Okay, that’s my general advice for anyone seeking to embark on their own language learning journey. I’m new at this, so while I’m not an expert, I’m also intimately familiar with the difficulties that beginners face. If you know more than I do, please jump in on the comments and correct me. In the near future, I’m going to share specific advice for those interested in learning to speak Spanish.
I hope you found this information valuable. If you want to learn from somebody with a lot more experience than me, I’d recommend reading this book, How To Learn Any Language. It’s a very entertaining, motivating, informative read.
As always, I appreciate any feedback. Please leave a comment with your language learning advice.